Alaska's Heritage


Tlingits settle in Southeast Alaska

The Tlingit Indians moved down the Nass, Stikine, and Taku rivers to occupy Southeast Alaska. The Tlingits regarded the Nass River valley, just south of Alaska's southern border, as the homeland of Yehl, the Raven of their legends. Yehl was the symbol of creation, maker of forests and mountains, rivers and seas.

The Tlingit people moved to Southeast Alaska from Interior regions. Although the Tlingits spoke a language related to those of the Athabaskans, they developed a culture distinct from that of the Athabaskans. It is possible that a culture similar to theirs developed on the British Columbia coast as early as 10,000 years ago. How early the Tlingits developed their Northwest Coast culture is unknown. Possibly Groundhog Bay in Icy Strait and Hidden Falls on Baranof Island, both dating back 8,000 years, are examples of the early coast culture.

Haidas move into Southeast Alaska

Tlingit territory extended the length of the Southeast Alaska mainland, and included the mainland coast and the offshore islands. Because the mountains come right to the water's edge in most areas, the people usually lived along the beaches. The Haidas moved into Southeast Alaska from the Queen Charlotte Islands of British Columbia in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, probably because of the pressures of internal wars. They are known to have in habited the Queen Charlotte Islands more than 7,000 years ago. By the mid-eighteenth century, over 1,700 Haidas lived in six villages on Prince of Wales Island. At the same time, some groups of Tlingits were moving northward into the Gulf of Alaska.

The sea provides for the Southeast Alaska people

Fish, shellfish, and land animals were abundant in Southeast Alaska. Because of this and the moderate coastal climate, the people, could hunt and gather food relatively easily year-round.

In February or March eulachon runs began. The Tlingits and Haidas took these fish in large numbers for their oil which they ate, traded, and burned for light during the winter months. To fish for eulachon, they used nets made of rawhide or cedar bark twine. Two people in a canoe drifted the nets downstream. One person paddled and the other worked the net. At the end of March they began sea fishing for halibut and cod and inland fishing for Dolly Varden. To fish for halibut and cod, the people used wooden hooks tipped with bone barbs.

In April, sea mammals migrating north passed through Southeast Alaska waters. Sea otters were taken for their pelts. The Southeast Alaska Natives also hunted hair seal, fur seal, sea lion, and porpoise for their meat and pelts.

Throughout March, Southeast Alaskans gathered shellfish, including clams, crabs, mussels, cockles, and snails, from the beaches. They also collected several kinds of seaweed.

In late March and April, Tlingits and Haidas harvested herring for their eggs and oil. They collected herring with rakes, dip baskets, and nets. A herring rake was a long pole with one end flattened. Sharp bones were set about an inch apart along one edge of the flat end. When the rake was plunged into the water, toothed end down, and drawn through a school of herring, many fish were caught on the teeth. Dip baskets were woven grass baskets, often with a long handle, that the people plunged into the water to scoop out fish. Many of the nets had lines with several hooks attached.

After the herring run, salmon returned from the ocean to spawn in freshwater streams. Fish traps, drift nets, dip nets, and spears were used to catch salmon. In late summer, women and children gathered berries.

The sketch of a Tlingit camp on Lituya Bay was drawn in 1786 by a member of the French La Perouse exploring Expedition.
Collection Name: Alaska Historical Library, Alaska Centennial Collection.
Identifier: PCA 020-0054
In the fall, the Tlingit and Haida people hunted deer, black bears, brown bears, mountain goats, and sheep. They used bows and arrows, snares, and spears. Occasionally they set deadfalls. An animal that fell victim to one of these traps would fall either into a deep hole from which it could not escape or over a bank or cliff to its death. Tlingits and Haidas also trapped smaller animals including fox, porcupine, marmot, otter, mink, beaver, squirrel, lynx, marten, rabbit, weasel, muskrats, and raccoons. They also sought birds, ducks, geese, and their eggs.

Shelter is readily available

Wood for shelter and warmth was readily available from Southeast Alaska's forests. The people felled the giant trees using tools of jade, bone, and wood along with using fire. Timbers were split with wedges made from the hard knots of yew wood.

Southeast Alaska Natives lived in large, rectangular, gable-roofed, plank houses. These houses measured up to 30 by 40 feet. As many as 12 families and their slaves lived in a house. The houses had no windows. One entered a house through a low door. Each family had a private area separated from the rest by mats that hung from rafters. House occupants shared a central fire. Sleeping benches lined the walls. Some villages had 12 such houses along the beach. In summer villagers moved to fishing camps, often just along the beach from their permanent houses.

Southeast Alaskans trade and travel great distances

Although coastal waterways through Southeast Alaska were dangerous, they provided the best transportation routes along the heavily-forested mountainous coast. The people traveled through these waters in wooden dugout canoes. The canoes varied in size and purpose. The larger canoes were for long-distance travel and war, the smaller ones for work and hunting. Some canoes were 70 feet long and required dozens of paddlers. A travel or war canoe took about a year to build. The Haidas built canoes for many other Pacific Northwest Coast people. One reason the Haidas were the chief suppliers of canoes was the abundance of large red cedar trees on the Queen Charlotte Islands.

Typically, the canoes were long, narrow, and high-pointed in front and back. Clan emblems were carved and painted on the canoes. A woman who was a member of a clan other than that of the canoe's owner did the design and painting. A Raven woman would do the work for an Eagle chief. Sometimes a chief's wife did the work. Then her emblems would appear in the design.

In mid-summer, Tlingits traveled down the coast to trade with Haidas. Chilkat blankets might be exchanged for a cedar canoe. The Tlingits sometimes traveled as far as Puget Sound to trade. Their war parties also traveled great distances. Tlingits went to war to obtain slaves, land, or material possessions.

The Tlingit kwans. Haida territory is also identified on this map.
Some Tlingit groups blazed trails from the sea coast through the Coast Mountains to trade with Interior Natives. Each group jealously guarded its route. The Chilkat Trail that went inland through the valley of the Chilkat River was one such trade route. It was sometimes called the grease trail because Chilkat Tlingits carried seal bladders filled with eulachon oil over it to the Interior. There they traded the oil and dentalium shells to Athabaskans for moose and caribou skins and raw copper that had been beaten into sheets.

Tlingit and Haida societies are highly structured

Tlingit territory was divided into 13 or 14 areas called kwans. Each kwan contained from one to six permanent villages. Every Tlingit was a member of one of two social divisions in a village. One group was Raven. The other group was Eagle or Wolf. Children had to marry a member of the opposite group. Tlingits traced their descent matrilineally. At birth, a Tlingit became a member of his or her mother's group.

Within their kwans, Tlingits formed clans based on kinship. Clans owned salmon streams, hunting grounds, berry patches, sealing rocks, house sites, trading trails, family crests or emblems, and even spirits. The head of a clan guarded a clan's properties and directed trading activities. Clan chiefs had power, rank, and wealth. They belonged to the nobility. The nobility spoke for a clan and preserved its honor. They were always responsible to the members. The other two classes were commoners and slaves. Most Tlingits were commoners who did the necessary day-to-day work. Slaves could be captured or purchased. They were not members of the clans they served.

Within each village, organizations governed the residents of the houses. Members shared canoes, slaves, totems, crests, dances, songs, stories, hunting and ceremonial objects. A house leader, usually the oldest brother of the family matriarch, led the ceremonial activities.

Haidas had a similar social structure. They had 20 clans. Their social divisions included Raven and Eagle.

Tlingits and Haidas have rich cultures

Tlingit and Haida people had rituals for events such as marriages, births, deaths, or the dedication of new totems or houses. Ceremonies, called potlatches, often involved giving and receiving gifts. Such events indicated wealth and social status. Members of a house, not the entire village, hosted potlatches. Each family had an official orator who performed at potlatches. Stories told the family's history and legends. Some were moral tales.

Although they used bone, horn, and ivory, Southeast Alaska Natives preferred to carve items from wood, particularly cedar. They decorated household items as well as ceremonial pieces. Their society included artisans, people who would trade items they made for food, clothing, and shelter.

A group of Tlingits at their camp in Lituya Bay. The drawing was done by a member of the La Perouse exploring expedition that visited Alaska in 1786.
Collection Name: Alaska Historical Library, Alaska Centennial Collection.
Identifier: PCA 020-0053
Tlingits and Haidas are well-known as carvers of totem poles. These huge wood pieces served several functions. There were memorial poles to commemorate special events, mortuary poles to honor dead chiefs, and house posts located inside houses to support roofs. All bore symbols or crests that belonged to a particular lineage, house, or family. The symbols told history and legends about the family, or in some cases, an individual. Crests of the Tlingit Raven group included ravens, hawks, puffins, sea gulls, land otter, mouse, moose, sea lion, whale, salmon, and frog. Those of the Tlingit Wolf and Eagle groups included wolf, eagle, brown bear, killer whale, dog fish, ground shark, and halibut.

Tlingits and Haidas also made wood masks that they used at ceremonies. The masks depicted birds and animals. Beads, feathers, and furs decorated their ceremonial costumes.

Spruce root hats decorated with family crests were treasured by their owners. Rings on the hat indicated the wearers' importance.

The Chilkat Tlingits were known for their woven blankets. They made them of cedar bark and mountain goat wool. The designs were split in half and symmetrical. Shirts, dance aprons, and other garments were woven in the same fashion.

Tlingit and Haida men and women liked to adorn their bodies. They used natural materials, such as abalone and dentalium shells, to fashion necklaces, bracelets, rings, earrings, headbands, and labrets. Tlingits developed the art of face painting more fully than any other Alaska Native group. They painted their faces when going to war or for dramatic effect during ceremonies. Designs for facial paintings were considered private property. Certain designs could be used by all Tlingits, while others were restricted to specific clans or individuals.

Upper class men in Tlingit and Haida societies had their bodies tattooed. They paid a professional tattooer to apply the designs. A feast often followed in honor of the person who had been tattooed.

The Tlingits and Haidas enjoyed playing games. Many of them involved gambling. The stick game was one. Several sticks in a bundle were marked. Then, through manipulation and guessing, players tried to collect all of the marked sticks.